Although not widely publicised, new legislation is coming into effect which will make it an offence for a person responsible for animals not to take reasonable steps to make sure that their needs are met. It may be surprising that this is new law, but the position in England prior to 6 April 2007 (the end of March in Wales) is that the law only comes into play in most cases when an animal has been subjected to cruelty.
This represents a big step forward as under the old law a prosecution could only proceed when cruelty had been inflicted. Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, however, a prosecution can be commenced when the standard of care is inadequate.
The law affects anyone who is responsible for the welfare of an animal, which includes a person with temporary control over the animal, such as someone looking after a cat for a holidaying neighbour. It requires that the animal is provided with a suitable environment and diet, is protected as far as is practicable from disease, pain and suffering and is able to exhibit its natural behaviour patterns. It does not increase the requirements where there are current legal standards (for example regarding the conditions for keeping battery hens), so the standard of care which is required will be dependent, to an extent, on the purpose for which the animal is being kept.
The Government has given itself the power to issue further regulations under the Act at a later date and to provide codes of practice where appropriate.
One practical aspect of the Act for businesses engaged in animal care is that staff should be trained in the new requirements and procedures should be put in place to ensure that they are complied with: the penalties for non-compliance are severe. For example, anyone causing unnecessary suffering to an animal can face imprisonment for up to 51 weeks, a fine of up to £20,000, or both.
Further information can be found on the DEFRA website